U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar walks to her office after being ousted by the Republican-lead House of Representatives to serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 2, 2023 Image Credit: Reuters

House Republicans successfully removed Democrat Ilhan Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee, booting from the panel a Black Muslim woman who GOP lawmakers have blasted for making antisemitic comments.

The 218-211 party-line vote marks a decisive victory for Speaker Kevin McCarthy who made last-minute deals to keep his fractious caucus together on a controversial vote Democrats criticised as an act of political revenge rooted in racism.

Omar, one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, has long been a target of Republicans who have accused her of using antisemitic tropes, for which she has since apologised, that disqualified her from serving on the panel.

"Words matter, rhetoric matters," Representative Michael Lawler of New York, a freshman member of the committee, said on the floor. "It leads to harm. And so the congresswoman is being held accountable for her words and for her actions."

Some other Republicans, however, saw removing her from the committee "- one of McCarthy's first moves as speaker "- as unnecessary overreach.

One key Republican holdout, Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina, decided to vote to oust Omar after McCarthy promised to back a rules change that would require a vote of the Ethics Committee to remove someone from a committee in the future. The rules change requires a vote on the House floor.

Earlier feuds

Omar's feuds with former President Donald Trump attracted the spotlight. 

"Is Ilhan Omar perfect? No. None of us are," House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said before the vote. "But this is not about accountability. This is about political revenge."

Representative Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on Foreign Affairs, called it a "shameful mark on this body" to oust the only African-born Muslim member of the panel. Omar, he said, had learned from past mistakes and provided valuable insight on the committee.

"Who gets to be an American?"

Omar fled Mogadishu during Somalia's civil war and spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp. She was one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, both elected in 2018, and was the first to wear a hijab on the House floor.

"Who gets to be an American? What opinions do you have to have to be counted as American?" Omar asked on the floor moments before the vote. "That is what this debate is about. There is this idea that you are suspect if you are an immigrant."

House Democrats had withheld their official committee roster for days to buy time to garner more Republican opposition to the resolution, but the delay gave Republicans time to alter the resolution to address due process concerns. That won over a few potential defectors despite arguments from Democrats that the language is nonbinding.

"I think setting a precedent of allowing an appeal process for the Speaker's and majority-party removal decisions is particularly important to freedom-loving legislators who usually are on the receiving end of issues like this," Representative Victoria Spartz of Indiana, one of the holdouts, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Omar's position on the committee has drawn mixed responses from within the Jewish community.

Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who is Jewish, backed Omar during a joint appearance on CNN, calling the argument that she's antisemitic "a pretext" driven by McCarthy's dependence on "extreme members" of his caucus. 

Schiff, the manager of Trump's first impeachment trial, was himself unilaterally stripped of a seat on the House Intelligence Committee by McCarthy earlier this week.